The Visual Raconteurs: Picturing Place in the City

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on October 15, 2010

Zakim Bridge

How do you envision Boston? How has it changed? How can we track and tackle the changing social and physical landscape of a city that millions call home? In recent years, a collaborative effort has been under way to chronicle and explore the ways in which visual imagery creates and preserves the perception of a city. This interdisciplinary research project, funded by the Urban Laboratory at University College London (UCL) and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, consists of an ever-increasing online catalog of images that fosters and encourages an active dialogue about the role of visuals in the changing scope of a city.

On September 16, 2010, the project, with an interdisciplinary panel, came to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). Organized and moderated by Mariana Mogilevich and Rebecca Ross of Harvard GSD, and Ben Campkin from UCL’s Urban Laboratory, the four-person panel explored the ways in which images play an active role in Boston’s development and how they interact with Boston’s people and spaces as a whole. The panelists each brought a particular image that they felt exemplified their work and its relationship to the changing urban landscape.

Here’s a rundown of the panelists:

The Advocate: As the project manager for the Green Line Extension (GLX) program through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), Kate Fichter offers a functional perspective on how images can influence and incite change within bureaucracies. The GLX logo represents the type of accessibility Fichter and MassDOT wish to provide for residents who will benefit from the line’s expansion to Medford and Somerville, yet it symbolizes community organization and unification. The logo, Fichter said, gives the project a stand-alone identity, breaking a barrier between policy and images, and stabilizing the entire point of the project: to allow more people to frequent and interact with Boston and track its development.

The Philosopher: As King Solomon wrote, “A truly wise man uses few words.” Alex MacLean embodied this sentiment with his short but effective presentation. An aerial photographer, MacLean explores the dramatic interplay between the functionality and aesthetic of his work. His photographs are gorgeous and provide breathtaking prospects of the city while operating as tools for development—showing open spaces and sites for infrastructure—and subliminal metaphors for the larger principles in life: MacLean offered photos of creeping urban sprawl to expose Boston’s shifting center and expansion, and how residents put increasingly more value on development rather than stasis.

The “Rebel”: This panelist’s moniker is no mistake. Visual artist Zebbler, born Peter Berdofsky, never imagined his 2007 guerrilla marketing campaign for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming would land him in jail. In fact, his cartoon LED panels scattered throughout the city were meant to promote the network’s upcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. Instead, authorities arrested him as a suspect in a “bomb scare.” Zebbler chronicled his installation of these objects, yet his project reminds us of the power of imagery. Although he intended to promote with his art, the panels evoked terror. Zebbler likes the idea of being a rebel, a visual game changer. He declared that his project changed the city because “Boston became funny. Funny, and a little sad.” He just wishes his grand “rebellion” wasn’t directly connected to consumerism.

The Guardian: Ann Whiteside’s occupation as director of Harvard GSD’s Frances Loeb Library makes her uniquely qualified as a guardian and coordinator of image culture—she acts as a historian and a reinterpreter of images from the 1950s to the present day. Whiteside re-creates how the environment of the past “felt” and describes visual sensations to preserve history and act as an executor of urban renewal. Through her comprehensive documentation of urban place and planning, Whiteside facilitates new data that compares old and new cityscapes, making it easy for people to interact with the past, present and future of urbanity.

The interactive nature of this project—in that anyone can upload an image and deconstruct its function and relationship to urban development—brings visual accessibility to a new level, encouraging an open and expressive dialogue on the overarching perception of urbanity in our world. The project will, with any luck, eventually manifest into a conference. For now, visitors can upload images to to participate in the venture.

Hannah Townshend


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: